JLegendary Welsh rugby star Phil Bennett, who died last month, would wake up his side against England, calling them ‘bastards… taking our coal, our water, our steel… They exploited us, raped us, controlled us and punished – it’s who you play against.” It was a combative speech, only half joking, it was Celts versus English.
In British history and politics, the Celts have grievances that come and go, but they never heal. They erupted once again over Brexit and Ireland and in a renewed demand for Scottish independence, a process that Boris Johnson and, more recently, Keir Starmer have vowed to resist. The result of this relentless pressure has been to make the UK’s borders among the most unstable in Europe.
That a once imperial nation on a small archipelago in the Atlantic cannot keep its national union in place is amazing. Underlying in part to its disunity is a theoretical division of the population into “Celts” and “Anglo-Saxons”, based on a fanciful conquest of one by the other supposedly in the 5th century. Modern genetics has shown the division to be meaningless, but it is rooted in the politics of the so-called Celtic Fringe – or at least in England’s reaction to it.
Traditional stories hold that at some point during the Late Bronze or Iron Age, a group of European tribes called Celts invaded and overwhelmed the ancient Britons, spreading their disparate but related languages across the population. They survived the Roman occupation intact, but tradition again has it that during the Roman retreat they were in turn overwhelmed by the Saxon invaders. These invaders would have driven the Celts west and created an English Empire of the British Isles. No trace of the earlier Celtic remained in its language.
The details of these two invasions have long been disputed by scholars. In the 1960s, historian JRR Tolkien called the Celtic Age “a fabulous twilight…a magic bag”. Archaeologist Grahame Clark protests against “invasion neurosis”, the idea that all social change requires conquest. Since the 1990s, DNA archeology has indicated that the diverse peoples of the British Isles were many and varied, with their settlement dating back to the Stone Age. As the prehistorian Barry Cunliffe has argued, today’s Celtic speakers probably migrated to the Atlantic seaboard from the Iberian Peninsula long before anyone knew of the Celts.
It might not have mattered if it weren’t for the way the British in the East asserted their supremacy over their neighbors to the West and have maintained it ever since. Starting with the Normans, the rulers of half of the British Isles called England created one of the most centralized states in Europe. The medieval wars against the Welsh and the Scots and the subsequent conflicts with the Irish duly engendered a passionate aversion of the West and North to the English. In the 19th century, this was rendered by an English invention of a “Celtic” stereotype. Matthew Arnold called the Celts “romantic and sentimental…lacking the temperament to form a political entity”, so different from the “disciplined and consistently obedient” Anglo-Saxons.
It is significant that this collective abuse against the Welsh, Scots and Irish has never met with a collective response. There was no Celtic solidarity, never a nation, a language or a culture, much less a military or political alliance. For the English, these peoples were to consider themselves as what amounted to English counties, such as Yorkshire or Kent, to be equated with a “great British union”. Wales were forced to join in 1536, Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1801.
Wales entered the union peacefully, Scotland reluctantly and Ireland never. The Irish rebellions followed one another until it obtained its independence in 1922. Thereafter, a rump United Kingdom made its cohesion. It was backed by a Tory unionist obsession and by a Labor Party that saw it as the embodiment of Aneurin Bevan’s “unity of the British working class”. The Celts were for fairy tales and antiques.
This makes what happened at the end of the 20th century all the more extraordinary. Enraged by Thatcher’s centralism, in 1989 a majority of Scottish MPs demanded the return of a Scottish parliament. Seizing the moment, Labour’s Tony Blair would later deliver modest devolution to the new Scottish and Welsh assemblies. These assemblies triggered a sudden explosion of regional identity politics. Nationalism came back to life. In Scotland, the Conservative Party has virtually disappeared.
In 2007 Scottish nationalists took power in Edinburgh and never lost it. Although the popularity of independence among Scots has risen and fallen, voters under 50 are overwhelmingly in favor of it. The odds at present are on Scottish independence one day. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, Brexit chaos has fueled expectations of a vote to reunite with the south in the future. Even in Wales, nationalist Plaid Cymru has gained new vigor, with support for an “independent” Wales between a quarter and a third of voters.
England’s response to this outburst of dissent has been inert. Throughout Europe, nation building has long been a controversial art. Violently in Yugoslavia and Ukraine, and relatively peacefully in Spain and Italy, the central governments have struggled tirelessly to maintain the loyalty of the peoples who compose them. As political historian Linda Colley has shown, this required respect for identity and ingenuity in devolution. German Landuh enjoy considerable autonomy. The Basques and Catalans of Spain have degrees of economic, fiscal and judicial sovereignty. Swiss cantons even have different definitions of democracy.
Britain’s Boris Johnson really didn’t care. The Prime Minister has called devolution in Scotland a “disaster”. After Brexit, he insisted that all EU powers and subsidies be repatriated not to devolved governments but to London. On trade, he appeases the most savage Northern Irish unionism. A simple One out of five voters in England now claim to care about Scottish independence, but Johnson fights to hold on to this first English empire with all the fervor of Edward I.
If I were Northern Irish, I would vote to join the prosperous south. If I were Scottish I would wonder why I was once richer than Ireland and Denmark but now am poorer and opt for independence no matter the pain. Yet I am neither of these things. I believe that a federated United Kingdom of England, Scotland and Wales benefits greatly from its diversity.
Grouping the Celts together as one people and one problem that can be swept under a unionist rug is humiliating to the ambitions of the Irish, Scots and Welsh. It won’t silence them. It will not help the search for what is now critical, tailor-made autonomy for each nation in a new British federation.